Looking Like a True Survivor

I’m still here.

I have five book reviews to write for you, but my brain is constantly full of bees.

I am forced to teach because I can’t live without the healthcare or the paycheck.

I am in danger every day. The husband is in danger every day. The stress of this takes all of my energy.

I just wanted to let you know.

I’m still here.

Return to Hogwarts: Prisoner of Azkaban

Sorcerer’s Stone
Chamber of Secrets

This is one of my favorite books of the series. The things that happen make sense for the most part, they reveal more of the history of Harry’s circumstances, and they set the stage for things to get much, much worse. I love the mystery of Sirius Black and how Remus Lupin helps him. I love the idea of the Marauder’s Map and the magic of Hogsmeade (I gotta get in Honeyduke’s). I love that Hagrid gets to be a teacher in a subject that is 100% in his lane and he picks a book that chomps. This book lets each character shine and really cements who they are and what their purposes are.

There are also less places for me to quibble about in this book. There’s no Harry facing off with Professor Quirrel/Voldemort after facing a magical obstacle course or Harry fighting a basilisk after finding the entrance to a chamber that adults should have found years ago. Prisoner of Azkaban is just teenagers doing teenager things and facing above average danger along the way. It’s a really great story.

It’s also the first time Harry begins to form a found family. There is someone out there that knew his parents and is his godfather and wants to support him, plus one of his teachers ends up being one of his dad’s best friends too. He already has his friends but this is different, these are adults who care about him because they want to, not because they are a teacher or otherwise obligated.

This is also a book where Hermione really shines. Punching Draco, using the time turner, learning so many subjects – this is a book about how essential Hermione is to Harry’s story. Dumbledore absolutely knows how important she is, hence the permission to use the time turner to take more classes to learn more than she normally would. She also comes out of her shell a bit in terms of following the rules. Where before she was a stickler, she’s starting to see that the world isn’t black and white, that sometimes to do what’s right you have to live in the grey.

Ron continues to be the most useless, terrible character in this entire series. He has one bright moment in the Philosopher’s Stone where he’s good at chess (?) but then we forget about that and he just continues to be poor and dumb with very few redeeming qualities. He’s the every man that’s there to ground Harry maybe? Pressure him into just being a normal kid that doesn’t like homework and messes around instead of growing into his birthright as the chosen one and being awesome at everything? I’m not sure, but I’ve never liked Ron and this book did not help his case.

I love this book. I love that rereading it only confirmed that it was one of my favorites. Now onto the largest book in the series and we’ll see if it holds up as one of my favorites as well.

Return to Hogwarts: Chamber of Secrets

HP & the Sorcerer’s Stone (#1)

The movie based on this book is the worst one of the bunch, and I maintain that the book is only slightly better. Similar to the first installment, Chamber of Secrets is a book for young children. Nothing is too scary, the chapters are short and easy to digest, and a very small cast of characters to keep track of.

I’m never quite sure why I dislike this story so much, but I think it lies in the fact that these three young kids are never in class, always looking for trouble, and rarely if ever caught. Why are three young wizards solving the mystery of the Chamber of Secrets right now when even a cursory look at the evidence should have led any of their teachers to come to the same conclusions? Dumbledore at least should know Moaning Myrtle, the ghost that haunts the bathroom where she died and where the entrance to the chamber is concealed. Dumbledore is supposed to be the most powerful wizard and extremely clever – he never thought to ask Myrtle what she saw once he knew she was the girl that was killed? He was there! Not to mention the people that kept being petrified – no one thought to brainstorm things that could cause people to become petrified and then maybe settle on a basilisk as being linked to Slytherin, who even the teachers know created the chamber himself? I just…I don’t know, I feel like asking me to believe that three 11 year old kids would solve all this when the adults around them never even investigated is asking a bit much.

But this is a kid’s book after all, and if I was a kid reading this it would probably inspire me to ask more questions and to want to be smart enough to solve a mystery like this. I think it’s important to view it from this perspective because at this point in the series Rowling is still writing children’s books. It’s problem solving and standing up for what’s right and fighting what’s wrong no matter how old you are, and that’s a good lesson to learn.

I am reviewing it as an adult though, and for me this book is the weakest of the seven. It does introduce the first Horcrux, which makes it important, and for that I give it a pass. On to the next one.

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games #1)

I know, I know, I’m two thousand and late with this one but lately starting a new book I’ve never read has been difficult. I’m re-reading the Harry Potter books and I decided to revisit The Hunger Games trilogy as well. I’ve never actually read Mockingjay (the third book), only seen the terrible movies, and this will be my chance to see if the book is better.

The first book in this trilogy goes so fucking hard. Honestly the speed with which Collins moves you through the absolute, gut-wrenching trauma of this universe is really spectacular. The first chapter manages to familiarize us with District 12, Katniss, her family’s history, her survival skills, her love for her sister, and the 74th Hunger Games reaping all in one short chapter and it’s simply amazing. I’ve read this book before and I was still hooked immediately and couldn’t stop reading.

What I like most about the story is the bright elements of humanity scattered throughout. In the midst of teenagers murdering each other for the entertainment of the entire nation, we still see friendships, empathy, support, grief, and love. I would argue that these elements are made even more stark when staged against the bloodbath and terror of the games. They give you a moment to breathe before you’re watching Katniss or Peeta fight/run for their lives again.

The trilogy as a whole (again, I’ve never read the third book, only seen the movies based on it) tracks Katniss’ journey from having no choice to being able to choose and claim agency. In this first book her survival skills and management of her family’s day to day operations is not her choice, it is essential and necessary if she wants to keep them all alive. Her inclusion in the games may seem like a choice, but again keeping her family alive and safe isn’t a choice, it’s duty to her. There was no other option but to volunteer in Prim’s place. Even in the Games she has no choice but to act like she is in love with Peeta because their “star crossed lovers” routine earns them sponsors and gifts in the arena, and she has promised Prim to try to win. Everything in this first book is something she must do, not anything she chooses to do.

This is a book that speaks to me on many levels. The idea of an obligation being disguised as a choice happens to people who are on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder all the time. Just because we are presented with options does not mean that they are all viable choices we can make. The choice Katniss has between poaching and death, learning safe, edible plants or dying, volunteering for the Games or having Prim go and die – none of these are choices between this or that. They are obvious directives.

Right now we are in the middle of a global pandemic, and school districts around the country are boasting about offering parents a choice: online or back to physical school. Aren’t we magnanimous to offer these options! Parents get to choose what is best for their families! In reality more well-off families, or parents who work from home will be able to keep their students SAFE, while other parents must send their kids back because they have to go to work and while they are given options, they don’t really have a choice.

Even farther down (further down? fuck it, I’m not looking it up) teachers were given options too! Come back to physical schools, teach a combo of online or in-person, or teach online only from home. If none of these worked for a teacher, they could resign, retire, or take a leave of absence. The only trick was that the availability of online only or the combo options depended on the responses from the parent survey. So, for example, if a school had 100% of the kids say they were coming back, no teacher assigned to that school would be able to teach safely from home even if they chose that option. Even if they had cancer. Even if they had asthma. Even if they had any number of conditions. Even if they were simply scared to work in unsafe conditions. Teachers had no choice at all – their preference was left to the mercy of however many kids came back or not.

Is it The Hunger Games? No, but the spirit of the Games is present here in America in 2020. No choice, fighting for survival and resources, and lining up to see the case and death numbers rise without doing anything to stop it. At all the state and federal Capitols they sit in their money and glamour and watch as we fight and try to survive, and it doesn’t even touch them. They have no concept of what living in America costs, whether those costs be financial or emotional, and even if they do they do not care. It’s more entertaining to watch us fight for scraps.

Reading this book right now is so necessary, it’s so relevant. If you haven’t read it before, you should. You might recognize more themes from our own reality than you expect. Go get you some.

Return to Hogwarts: Sorcerer’s Stone

The first novel in the series is undoubtedly a children’s book. The chapters are short and simple, the characters easy to remember. The story is easy to follow and the ending is clear and final with a hint of what’s to come in the next year.

I enjoyed watching Harry escape the Dursleys and discover his new world at Hogwarts. His initial shopping trip with Hagrid to get his supplies is always a favorite scene for me, either to read or to watch in the movie. Back to school shopping is exciting, whether it’s in the real world or the wizarding world.

I’m familiar with the troublesome characterizations, especially the goblin bankers. But if I am a young child reading this book, I don’t have a deep analysis of anti-semitism waiting to jump out and criticize this aspect of the book. I’m just a kid in a fantasy world where there are giants and goblins and dragons. Problematic once you realize what it all stemmed from in the author’s mind? ABSOLUTELY. Does a kid realize that? Probably not.

Given that it is a children’s book, I was surprised at how the villain is introduced. Voldemort’s spirit is attached to another person’s body, and he speaks to Harry from the back of their head. Again, as an adult who has seen the movie many times I have a frame of reference. If I am a kid reading this for the first time, I feel like I would have trouble imagining the final confrontation scene without something to go by. I know there are illustrated versions of these books now, but an illustration near this scene would probably do kids a world of good in their understanding of what is happening.

Something the husband complains about a lot and I kind of have to give it to him is the idea of the houses. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. The house cup idea works and I like that the Sorting Hat lets kids have a say in where they go, but here it’s the issue of stereotypes that raises its ugly head again. If I’m a kid though, I see it as teams. As an adult I see it as “pushy and bold,” “fat with perseverance,” “smart and bitchy,” and “UGLY AND EVIL” and it’s hard to shake that. Every single Slytherin is written as bad and is shown that way in the movies. If ambition and single-mindedness is the Slytherin thing, there has to be a balance in there someplace. And if the house was all evil kids, why not do away with it and stop inviting those kids? Something about this idea seems unbalanced and unfair, and it rose to the fore here in the first book for me.

It’s a cute first book that a kid would be able to read and enjoy. As an adult there’s a lot going on here that is…questionable? but all in all it holds up. Sometimes in society and schools things are so ingrained that it’s easy to criticize from the outside but affecting change from the inside is impossible. I don’t mind criticizing the magical world set up here but I understand that the universe Rowling has set up has been around for hundreds of years and tradition that deep would be defended at all costs, whether right or wrong.

On to the (worst) next one: Chamber of Secrets.

Return to Hogwarts: A HP Review Series

I have no memory of reading most of the Harry Potter books when they first came out. The only one I can remember is that I ordered Deathly Hallows when I was in Arizona, I went to the midnight release, and then stayed up the rest of the night to read it cover to cover. I was only partially on my way to learning that staying up late has never and will never work for me, but that’s a different story.

Lately I have been relying on routine to keep my anxiety at bay. I get up at the same time, I go to bed at (roughly) the same time. I try to keep my mealtimes around the same time every day. When I go to bed I read a chapter of a book and listen to a Headspace meditation followed by a Headspace sleep session (shout out to Night Strings). Predictability helps me stomach the high levels of uncertainty that are waiting for me when the school year finally starts.

I wanted to add a non-screen element to my evening routine, but I didn’t want to read a book that was new or too deep to process when I’m trying to wind down to sleep. I decided that in light of all the J.K. Rowling TERF bullshit I would re-read the HP books to see if they were still good, and decide if I could separate the work from the idiot.

I just finished HP and the Sorcerer’s Stone a couple of nights ago, and I am working on Chamber of Secrets now. I only read one chapter each night and once I finish, I’ll share my thoughts. No set day for them, but when I’m ready, they’ll get posted.

Hideaway

Nora Roberts remains one of my go-to romance authors. Her books are mostly story with the romance being well woven into that story. Other romances I’ve tried seem to be sex focused, which I totally understand, but I’ve always liked how Roberts gives you more than you expect.

This book had a different structure than those I’ve read by her in the past. It was a lot longer than previous Roberts I’ve read too. This book follows Caitlyn Sullivan from her kidnapping at the age of ten, to her early adult years around age 18, to her adult years which I think was mid- to late-twenties if I remember correctly. She journeys through obstacles that ask her to redefine fear, family, and love, so that when she finally has a chance to be with the guy she should be with, she’s ready intellectually and emotionally.

I was surprised that there were very few sex scenes. In a book of this size I expected more, but as the first third was basically her as a ten year old, then the second half was her just out of high school, it stood to reason that you shouldn’t expect hot and heavy scenes until she’s a full fledged adult. Even in the last third of the book we only get two intimate moments, and she wrote such a hot, patient love interest that I could have stood a few more.

The MC comes from an acting dynasty and has a lot of privilege both financially and career-wise, and Roberts addresses that in the book through Caitlyn’s friendships. The first boy she dates is a black man in New York City when she moves there after high school, and he’s beaten on the order of one of her kidnappers who is serving time and using his connections to punish those who were involved with the botched kidnapping and ransom. It’s brief, but the complexity of racism in relationships and in the world at large was dealt with very well.

A theme I love to find in the books I read is the theme of found family, especially if it comes attached to the idea that just because someone gave birth to you, it doesn’t mean you are obligated to love them or even keep them in your life. Caitlyn’s mom Charlotte is constantly being an asshole in this book, and watching Caitlyn slowly let her go is something I really enjoyed.

I am not a big fan of pushy love interests, but Roberts wrote one of the most patient men I’ve ever read here. He’s just doing what he does and when Caitlyn returns to the house in Big Sur where she grew up, he’s already there helping her grandparents, who have connections with his mom and grandmother from when they helped Caitlyn get home safely after her kidnapping so many years prior. He’s also very close to his mom and grandmother, and they all run a ranch/farm/dairy business together and whenever they were all together my heart smiled. Unconventional family themes here too, just a little different but no less fulfilling.

The only area I was really disappointed with was the ending. The thriller side of the story just fizzled out. There was no satisfying punishment or evident resolution of the antagonist, we’re just asked to take for granted that they are dealt with because reasons? All the way up to the last 50 pages of the book you’re like “omg I wonder who is doing this to her (spoilers!) how are they managing it I need to know!” but when you find out who and how you’re going to be like “This feels too convenient” because it is.

Overall it was a heart-warming story/thriller about family, the costs of fame, and how to recover from betrayal. I really enjoyed it and read it in only a few sittings. You should read it too. Go get you some.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires

I thought that when I finished Where the Crawdads Sing I had used up my excellent book karma for the entire year. Oh boy was I wrong. Grady Hendrix has spun a yarn here that is so vibrant and arresting that by the end I actually had to go lie down to slow my speeding heartbeat.

I felt so many emotions. Horror and fear of course, but anger at how badly the women of the group are treated by their husbands. The eighties and nineties really suffered from a 1950s hangover in terms of how wives and housewives were treated (although I would argue that married women/mothers are still not treated well or equitably, but this book takes place in the eighties and nineties so that’s the context for now).

I was heartened by how the women supported each other. Whether it was childcare, cleaning, elder care, carpools, you name it and the women were a closely knit team who had each other’s backs.

Hendrix wove racial differences between communities into the story seamlessly. Mrs. Greene, the black housekeeper that the MC hires to take care of her elderly mother-in-law that comes to live with them full time, brings the vampire activity to the women’s attention showing them how the black children were falling prey to him and because they were from the black community it never made the papers and anyone outside the black neighborhood didn’t notice.

First the vampire came for the black children, and the women tried to do something but were thwarted by the men, and so Mrs. Greene was left out to dry, her beliefs about white people reaffirmed.

You will hate most of the men by the end of this, but it will be a hatred of their own making. Everything they do is 100% realistic and you’ll recognize all of them. You’ll be frustrated that the women threaten to break apart because they feel a stronger allegiance to their husbands than to each other. All you will want is for the women to forget about their husbands and get together to destroy this leech and keep everyone safe. I found myself continually returning to the rallying cry of today: Believe the women!!! If only the men had believed them from the start, but then we wouldn’t have been given the entirety of this amazing book.

This is an amazing, original take on the vampire story. If you have the time you will read it in one sitting. I was disappointed when I had to put it down to go to sleep or do other things. If you can stomach a little gore and horror, this is a tale that illuminates so much more than good versus evil and you will want to read it. Go get you some immediately!

In The Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1)

I have been enjoying mystery/thrillers lately and In The Woods by Tana French kept popping up on the lists of best police procedural mysteries so I placed that hold at the library.

The buddy cops Rob and Cassie are super adorable and I loved them immediately. Watching their banter and interactions made me laugh out loud more than once, and it was refreshing to see a true male/female friendship in a book that had no romantic undertones at all. It was more like a sister/brother dynamic if I had to compare it to anything at all, but really they were best friends and good partners.

Aaaand that’s where what I liked about this book ends. It wasn’t enough to keep me reading to the end, which disappointed me because I was hoping to get into this series. Everything took forever to do, almost half the book was just walking around a small Irish town talking to people and it was boooorrrrrriiiiiiing. When I got close to halfway and I realized I didn’t care about the story or what was happening, liking the two main characters wasn’t going to be enough to make me keep reading about the boring things they were doing. This was a did not finish and I was glad to put it down.

I think that Louisa Luna has ruined me for all other police procedurals, so I’ll take the next Alice Vega novel now, thanks. 🙂 But Into the Woods should be skipped. Go read Two Girls Down or The Janes instead if you haven’t yet.

Where the Crawdads Sing

Every once in awhile I read a book that is so beautiful, so well written, and so personal that I want to recommend it to everyone I meet. It’s the kind of book that is difficult to explain why you should read it, and all that comes out is a garble of “just read it, TRUST ME!” Well, my friends, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those books.

The solitude of the main character Kya is what makes this book absolutely heart-wrenching. People help her along the way (and discriminate against her ruthlessly) but from child to old woman she is essentially alone and how she navigates that life is the lifeblood of this story. Watching her try to survive in the marsh as her family leaves her one by one, first her mother, then her siblings, and finally her father; seeing the few people who know what her situation is but don’t turn her in to the social services and instead help her survive – I didn’t know I was holding my breath through the entire first half of the book because even I didn’t want her to lose her marsh, her wildlands, her seagulls.

I was inspired by how she made a life out of nothing and how she found joy without other people. My heart broke for her when she trusted and saw that trust betrayed. I was furious when her naivete was taken advantage of. Despite all the bad, Kya finds joy in her simple life and it is a good lesson to receive from such a good book.

I haven’t come across many books about “white trash” in my reading, and so many aspects of Kya’s experience hit home for me, more than I want to admit. This book made me cry several times, not only because the story was powerful but because I remembered feeling what Kya was feeling in relationship to the larger world and the dangers it holds.

This book is powerful in an era where we are increasingly talking about how we need to understand each other better and do away with discrimination and oppression. And from an educator’s standpoint, Kya is an extreme example of the need to meet children where they are so they can learn in the way that is best for them, and I wish that we could teach all poor and secluded children the way Kya was taught. There are a multitude of themes to be discussed while reading and this would make an amazing book club pick in 2020.

If you are a woman, you need to read this book. If you are a man who loves a damaged woman, you need to read this book. If you haven’t already, please, go read this book. TRUST ME.